Out of Left Field
Tracking Down the Elusive Walk-off
"Hi, Dmitri Walkov here for Svenska Baseball Shoes. You probably didn't know this, but I'm da guy who started this whole 'Walk-off home run' craze over in America."
Where did the trend start?
Who's the villain here?
By STAN ISAACS
THIS is the story of a pursuit.
It recently occurred to me that the term walk-off home run was being mouthed and written about with increasing frequency of late in baseball reports.
I like the term. Unlike many of the baseball cliches that suddenly come out of the blue, assault our ears for awhile even though they add nothing to comprehension, walk-off home run has a nice ring to it, it is succinct and it describes exactly what it is--a home run that enables the winning and losing teams to walk off the field because the hit ends the game.
There had been some memorable walk-off home runs in the days when people did not call them that. Bobby Thomsons Shot heard Round the World ended the 1951 playoff series between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Bill Mazeroski won the 1962 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Yankees with a walk-off homer. Ditto for Joe Carter of Toronto over the Phillies in the sixth game of the 1993 Series.
I started my quest for the derivation of the term by asking the members of a roundtable of baseball writers with whom I break bread each month. Neither Larry Ritter, author of the acclaimed The Glory of Their Times, nor former Sports Illustrated worthy, author Bob Creamer, among others knew.
New York Daily News sports columnist Vic Ziegel said, The only thing I can think of is that it could be related to the jazz term, a walk-out act.
Bob Costas responded to my e-mail, saying, Id imagine it was a ball player who originated it, or perhaps an ESPN anchor. I called ESPN and was told that their guys and gals use it all the time, for sure, but none claim authorship. Tim McCarver was amused at the idea a ball player might have originated it and suggested that the hard-working people at the Elias Bureau that compiles baseball statistics might know.
Steve Hirdt of Elias, everybodys favorite authority, said, I like the phrase. Its brief, descriptive and captures the image of the players walking off the field as a result of the hit. I don't know how it started, but I am curious about it.
It struck me that walk-off home run might have stemmed from the term lead-off hitter. And wouldnt it be something, I thought, if some player on the home team hit a lead-off home run and then ended the same game with a walk-off home run to end the game. That piqued Tim McCarvers memory. Im sure, he said, there was a Mets game in the late 80s or early 90s when a Cincinnati player hit a walk-off home run to end a game and then hit a lead-off home the very next day.
Some experts say 'Big Bopper' Barnes of Chicago (left) may have 13 consecutive 'walk-offs' while others contend LeRoy 'Long Ball' LaRue of Detroit has 14.
That led me back to Steve Hirdt. He said, It has been done a few times at least, Im sure. The last time was by Darren Erstad of Anaheim against Minnesota. On June 25 last year, he led off the game with a homer and then won the game in the 11th inning with a walk-off homer.
I was finding out that walk-off homers were being hit at almost double the rate of the past few years, but I wasnt finding its roots. It was amusing if not enlightening to hear the explanation offered by roundtable regular Lee Lowenfish, author and radio eminence. He explained:
In Russia in 1946 in the National Lepka Tournament (lepka predated baseball as all Sovietologists know) a game-winning homer in the finals at Tibilsi hit the lepka commissioner Dmitri Walkov in the noggin as he was making a rare vist to the right field bleachers. The joy of the moment and the incongruity of the incident caused all to shout in unison, Thats a Walkov homer!
Of course the vulgar Americans have turned this into a walk-off homer, but you now know the real story.
I stopped by Shea Stadium and asked some of the Mets people.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine said, No, I wish I could help you. Sorry.
Hitting coach Bob Engle said, Hmmm, I dont know.
Utility man Joe McEwing said, Sorry.
Pinch-hitter Lenny Harris said, Ive thought about that. But I dont know.
Mets radio announcer Gary Cohen had a clue. I think it may have originated with Dennis Eckersley several years ago after he gave up one of those. I think the term lay there for awhile and has suddenly burst into use the past few years.
Cohen put me with Kit Stair, a reporter with the Westchester Journal-News who is a longtime friend of Eckersley. Stair said, Eck is a colorful guy with a lot of novel expressions. He may have originated it, for sure. Stair told me he would pass my phone number on to Eckersley in Boston and Eck would call me. Alas, Eckersley did not call.
Then somebody told me, Sports Illustrated may have run something on it a few months ago.
Finally, I hit pay dirt. In a piece by Jeff Pearlman in the July 17 Sports Illustrated, he wrote, Although nobody is sure when walk-off was first bellowed over the airwaves, former Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley according to The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary is considered the father of the term. In 1993 Eckersley supposedly used it to describe that lonely stroll from the mound giving up the winning run. The germ of the term may have incubated much earlier than that, when Eckersley was the victim of the storied walk-off home run by the Dodgers Kirk Gibson to beat Oakland in the opening game of the 1988 World Series.
There are those who react to the constant use of the term and dont like it. After Cincinnati Reds third baseman Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run to beat San Diego this year, he said, I refuse to call it a walk-off home run. It was a game-winning home run.
Admittedly, as descriptive as the term is, walk-off home run can be abused. As Costas pointed out, It reached absurd depths when, after the Royals had won three or four straight in that fashion, I heard a sportscaster remark,Well, the Royals won tonight, but their streak of walk-off victories ended. It so happened that the Royals were the visiting team playing the Yankees in New York.
© 2001 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The other illustrations are from IMSI's Master/Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
You can comment on this column or contact Stan Isaacs with an email to: email@example.com
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